Though it was a tough sell when released in 1942 while WWII raged on, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be is a bold, wartime comedy set in occupied Poland as a theater group led by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, in her final film, takes on the Nazis.
To Be or Not To Be opens before the 1939 occupation and plays with expectations. It begins with a couple of scenes involving the Nazis that don’t offer any laughs to signal it’s a comedy. Polish citizens are shocked by what they witness on the street, and Benny is shown as a Gestapo officer trying to extract information. It’s not until Hitler appears in Gestapo headquarters and responds with the silly “Heil myself” that viewers discover they have been watching a play being rehearsed.
Later that evening during a performance of Hamlet starring Josef Tura (Benny), a young man gets up and leaves during the start of the play’s famous soliloquy that is the film’s title. The young man is Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) and he is wooing Josef’s wife, Maria (Lombard). Though nothing is shown, it’s clear they begin having an affair.
After the Germans invade Poland, the actors join the fight, although Josef is understandably concerned by what is going on with his wife. Prof. Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is introduced as a Polish resistance leader, but Sobinski discovers his true allegiance. Josef impersonates Siletsky, and when his cover is nearly blown, he has to figure out a way to outsmart the Nazis, which isn’t to hard when the man in charge is dim-witted Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), who was an obvious influence on Col. Klink from TV’s Hogan’s Heroes.
The script offers twists to throw off expectations where the story is going. Where some films would come to a stop, To Be or Not To Be frequently takes an extra turn in the story, adding to the suspense and enjoyment. Benny gives such a great performance it’s hard to believe he didn’t have greater success as a movie star. Lombard died in a plane crash while the film was still in post-production. The rest of the cast makes their characters memorable with the limited screen time allotted.
The video is has been given a 1080p/ MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. According to the booklet, “this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and a 35mm nitrate composite fine grain at Metropolis Post in New York. The restoration was performed by the Prasad Group, India, and the Criterion Collection.” The blacks are outstanding. They are very inky while offering very fine details. Textures are also well defined in the many shades of grays, which rendered well. The image shows great depth and clear focus throughout.
Also from the booklet, “the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” Dialogue is clear and blends well with the sound effects and score. No sign of age or defect to be heard.
In regards to the features that accompany the film, historian David Kalat offers an informative commentary about Lubitsch, the cast, and the film. “Lubitsch Le Patron” (53 min) is a 2010 French documentary about the director’s career from Berlin to Hollywood. Pinkus’s Shoe Palace (45 min) is a 1916 German film considered Lubitsch’s breakout as a director and finds him starring as his Sally Meyer character. While interesting from a historical perspective, the film doesn’t deliver a lot of laughs. The Screen Guild Theater was a radio anthology series from 39 to 52. “Variety” (29 min) from 10/20/40 features Benny, Colbert and Lubitsch as Benny tries to get cast in a dramatic sketch role. “To Be or Not To Be” from 1/18/43 stars William Powell and wife Diana Lewis as Joseph and Maria Tuara in an abbreviated version of the story. The booklet contains an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a response by Lubitsch to his critics, which appeared in the New York Times on 3/29/42.
If the question you ask yourself is whether to buy or not to buy, I’d recommend adding Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy classic to your collection.